Galen Hall — Cal Beta Poker Star Extraordinaire

Galen Hall — Cal Beta Poker Star Extraordinaire

How would winning $2.3 million change your life? If your name is Galen Hall, winner of the 2011 PokerStars.net Caribbean Adventure (PCA) $10,000 Main Event poker tournament, the answer is not all that much.

“My life hasn’t really changed,” reported Galen from his San Francisco apartment. “I’m still working part-time for a start-up company, and I’m still playing a couple of online sessions per week, just like before.”

Yes, you read that right. The 25-year-old graduate of Cal is still working after he walked home with more than $500,000 of cash (that is, after paying off taxes and his financial backers) for five days of playing some poker. And to answer your second question — no, he has not splurged on any extravagant items.

“I haven’t made any big purchases, although I did throw a big party for my friends once I got home,” Hall said. “But that’s about it. There’s no significant item I intend to buy either. I made enough money online last year where if there was something I wanted to buy, I bought it.  So there will be no splurging.  I hate driving and don’t want to own a car.  I am saving the money and plan to put it towards my future start-up venture.”

The former political science major will be headed to Palo Alto this fall to attend the MBA program at Stanford.  However, Galen has not forgotten his Cal roots, and credited some of his success in the poker world to his experience living at the SAE house on Bancroft Way.

“Being a Berkeley SAE was an amazing experience,” he said. “I served as Eminent Archon for two terms, and I really loved everything about it.  It was such an interesting and diverse group of guys. We had football players living next to members of the marching band and aspiring chemical engineers.  Everyone was different, but we were all good at whatever we did. Coming from a private school, the SAE house was the first time I’ve encountered people with very different viewpoints from my own.  So it really helped me grow as a person.”

Hall began his journey to the top of the poker world in high school when he casually played with friends in home games. At Cal, he deposited some money into online sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker and had success almost immediately. But there was a problem.  While Hall had no trouble winning money, he struggled holding onto it.

“At that time, I just did not understand bankroll management at all,” he recounted. “I ran up big sums of money in these online accounts and began to think I was invincible. Then I would play high stakes games and lose it all back.  I went through some large swings.”

Hall played off-and-on during his undergraduate years, making tens of thousands of dollars between classes playing mainly online, multi-table tournaments and heads-up “sit-and-go” tournaments.

“Cash games got boring to me.  I’m a very competitive guy and I liked the idea of one winner for each tournament. It’s kind of like sporting events – there is only one winner.  I also adapt to changing dynamics very quickly so [online tournaments] suit my skill set.”

While he enjoyed the extra income, Hall did not commit to playing poker full-time until after he graduated in 2008.

“I applied to Stanford business school when I was a senior at Cal, so I anticipated going to school right away,” he said. “But the admissions office wanted me to get some work experience first, so I was deferred for two years. That’s when I started doing really well online, and I deferred one additional year on my own.”

These days, Hall works four days a week for Identified.com, a start-up company in the Bay Area. But he devotes every Wednesday and Sunday to chasing down the biggest online tournaments for up to 12 hours per day. The speed and convenience of online poker allows Hall to play 16-18 tournaments simultaneously, all from the convenience of his bedroom.  As a result, despite pursuing his passion only two days a week on average, he managed to play over one million hands of poker and cashed for over $1 million in 2010.

After graduating from Cal, Hall quickly became known as a player to be reckoned with by the online regulars, winning scores of tournament victories in the process.  Since May 2008, he has amassed well over $1 million in tournament winnings and is currently ranked as the 35th best tournament player on the Internet by PocketFives.com. But despite all of this success, he had never before earned more than $50,000 in a single tournament.

That is, of course, until this past January.  With the help of some monetary backers, including an established Canadian pro and some good friends, Hall entered the $10,000 PCA Main Event which was played at the Atlantis Resort and Casino in Paradise Island, Bahamas. The tournament attracted a record field of 1,560 players, including most of the top professionals in the world. But when all the dust had settled, Hall emerged victorious.

After three full days of poker, the highly skilled field was whittled down to 173 players, with Hall clinging to a below average chip stack. But Day 4 of the event marked the turning point in Hall’s tournament (and quite possibly his life). The online whiz kid grew his stack from 80,000 tournament chips to 1.7 million in a little over 45 minutes, transforming his position from just another player in the field to the tournament’s new, feared chip leader.

In what Hall describes as the key hand of the tournament, with only 40 players remaining, he re-raised a “weaker player” on the flop with a flush draw.  The turn gave Hall an inside straight draw as well. His opponent checked and Hall checked behind.  On the river, Hall filled his straight draw with an offsuit 10, his opponent bet into him with two pair, and Hall raised all-in. After thinking for a long time, Hall’s opponent reluctantly called, a mistake that eliminated him from the tournament, and added about 1.5 million to Hall’s chip stack. The opponent was visibly upset and irritated when he headed for the exit doors.

After this showdown, Hall cruised to the final table, and in the process eliminated 2003 World Series of Poker Champion and poker celebrity Chris Moneymaker in 11th place. At the final table, Hall outlasted the table’s long-time chip leader Chris Oliver in an extended heads-up battle to take the PCA trophy and the $2.3 million first place prize.

For the first time in the event’s history, the final table was broadcast live on ESPN with poker great Daniel Negreanu serving as the lead commentator for all 211 hands that lasted more than ten hours. In what was the most talked about hand of the tournament, Hall avoided elimination [in hand 119] when he correctly folded a straight on the river to Oliver’s all-in bet with a full house.

“It was a difficult fold,” Hall said. “But in the end, after analyzing all of the factors in play, my hand was just not that strong against the range of hands he was representing. I have played against Chris a lot online, so I knew his game, and it just did not seem like he was bluffing.  The biggest mistake a lot of amateurs make is getting too attached to the absolute value of their hand. Yes, I had a straight, but it was pretty likely that he had a better hand, so I threw it away.  Fortunately, it was the right decision.”

After paying off taxes and his financial backers, Hall came home with “only” a little over $500,000.  He plans to use this money to pay for his business school tuition and to eventually help start-up his own company after he graduates. In the meantime — still eight months away from starting classes in the fall — he is enjoying his newfound celebrity status and is continuing to dominate the online tables.

“I’ve had a lot of people call me in the last month,” he said. “Most of them just wanted to congratulate me, but of course many others wanted some money. I had to tell them all no.”

Phi Alpha, Galen. I’m sure we’ll all be hearing from you again soon enough.

Editor’s Note. Thanks to Lance Williams, ’08, SAE NY Alpha (Cornell University) for conducting the interview and writing this story about Galen.